Punctuation marks are symbols that indicate the structure and organization of written language, as well as intonation and pauses to be observed when reading aloud.
In written English, punctuation is vital to disambiguate the meaning of sentences. For example, "woman, without her man, is nothing" and "woman: without her, man is nothing" have greatly different meanings, as do "eats shoots and leaves" and "eats, shoots and leaves". "King Charles walked and talked half an hour after his head was cut off" is alarming; "King Charles walked and talked; half an hour after, his head was cut off", less so. (For English usage, see the articles on specific punctuation marks.)
The rules of punctuation vary with language, location, register and time and are constantly evolving. Certain aspects of punctuation are stylistic and are thus the author's (or editor's) choice. Tachygraphic language forms, such as those used in online chat and text messages, may have wildly different rules.
The first writing systems were mostly logographic and/or syllabic, for example Chinese and Maya script, and they do not necessarily require punctuation, especially spacing. This is because the entire morpheme or word is typically clustered within a single glyph, so spacing does not help as much to distinguish where one word ends and the other starts. Disambiguation and emphasis can easily be communicated without punctuation by employing a separate written form distinct from the spoken form of the language that uses slightly different phraseology. Even today, formal written modern English differs subtly from spoken English because not all emphasis and disambiguation is possible to convey in print, even with punctuation.
The earliest alphabetic writing had no capitalization, no spaces and few punctuation marks. This worked as long as the subject matter was restricted to a limited range of topics (e.g., writing used for recording business transactions). Punctuation is historically an aid to reading aloud (vis George Bernard Shaw).
The oldest known document using punctuation is the Mesha Stele (9th century BC). This employs points between the words and horizontal strokes between the sense section as punctuation.
The Greeks were using punctuation marks consisting of vertically arranged dots - usually two (cf. the modern colon) or three - in around the 5th century BC. Greek playwrights such as Euripides and Aristophanes used symbols to distinguish the ends of phrases in written drama: this essentially helped the play's cast to know when to pause. In particular, they used three different symbols to divide speeches, known as commas (indicated by a centred dot), colons (indicated by a dot on the base line), and periods or full stops (indicated by a raised dot).
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